The village looked like a dream, sitting by a large lake in the middle of nowhere – the trees growing tall and dense. I had not planned to seek civilisation while traversing this remote region, but upon finding the road that led me here, my inner voice told me to follow it; and like most of my adult life, I listened.
The voice guides me to paths I never knew existed, choices I never realised was available to me…
… Well, I should probably leave it at that. As it is the reason for my journey, to see where these “imaginary” roads can take me.
At the outskirts of the village, I passed a few quaint looking houses, all in red, as was customary on the countryside.
And upon entering the town, I immediately encountered a large crowd gathering at the centre of town. The town was buzzing with activity and vendors, which suited me as it made my presence all the more inconspicuous.
I don’t want to be asked too many questions, and I wasn’t inclined to ask them any either.
As I trotted through the paved streets while looking at the wares of the vendors, my mouth began to salivate. Realising that I hadn’t eaten in a while, I decided to stock up on supplies and try a few local cousins while I was there.
I looked around the vendors until I ended up on the other side of town, by the lake.
Staring into the lake’s clear blue water and taking in the fresh air, I had a sudden craving for fish and I immediately began searching for it.
But as I searched, and the sun began to disappear behind the trees, I found myself disappointed. What’s more, it seemed that my cover had been blown already, as I got a few curious glances as I walked by.
Disheartened, I managed to find a restaurant by the lake. One of the few pubs and restaurants available it seemed. I decided to try my luck there. I really want to eat fish for some reason… Both my stomach and mind were telling me this, and as aforementioned, I never argue with my inner voice.
The pub looked like what you’d expect from a small town such as this. The walls built with dark brown wooden panels, the atmosphere gloomy, and large kegs of beer standing by the bar.
I got a few curious glances here as well, but nothing else. No angry glares or demands for me to leave. I figured the people were simply too shy, or just uninterested in strangers overall, so I paid them no mind.
As I sat down by a window and placed my backpack on a stool next to me, the barkeep showed up with a pen and paper at the ready. He looked friendly enough, at least he smiled at me. I was probably the first outsider he had in ages, and as any good proprietor, they appreciated anyone’s patronage.
“What will it be, stranger,” he said
“What kind of fish do your serve?”
Immediately upon asking, the atmosphere became tense and the barkeeper’s brow furrowed deeply.
“I… I’m sorry, sir. We do not serve fish here. You’ll have to ask for something else. I do recommend bear steak that we recently…”
I interrupted the man quite rudely, but I could not help myself for the statement was too absurd to ignore.
“What do you mean no fish? Is there something wrong with the lake? It didn’t smell poisonous to me,” I said irritably.
The barkeep glanced over his shoulder and then looked back at me, his lips flattening. Clearly hesitant to explain, he finally braved his fears and bent over closer to my ear and whispered.
“You have no way of knowing this, being a stranger and all, but I suggest you ask for something else,” he said, nodding at three burly men sitting with their backs turned against us, their fingers tapping loudly on the counter to indicate their irritation.
A chill went down my spine as I imagined having to take these men on by myself and I heeded the barkeeper’s warning and asked for the bear steak that he recommended earlier.
After this strange encounter, I wanted to get out of town as quickly as possible and continue on my journey. But as I stood at the crossroads on the outskirts of the village, I felt something that had become alien to me in my adulthood… indecision.
Pondering over what to do, it became clear to me that I could not leave it as it was, I had to know. So, reluctantly, I returned to the pub, to the barkeeps displeasure. But things were less agitated this time around as the pub was about to close and the three burly men were nowhere to be seen.
Indeed, the barkeep seemed to be content with my inquiry as he was already pouring beer into two mugs by the bar.
Without any words exchanged the barkeep began recounting a story as I sat by the bar and sipped on my freshly poured beverage.
He said, “Centuries ago, when the land was still divided between the Freemen of the forest and the Houses of Power in the plains, large deposits of minerals was found not too far from here. Naturally, the greedy eyes of the nobles were turned towards us and they demanded our subjugation. My ancestors resisted, of course, but in reality, there was nothing they could do to stop the might of the king. Regardless, the king’s victory was hard won, and they felt the need to punish us for our disobedience.”
“Little did my ancestors know, the full extent of their cruelty. One after the other, the Freemen got executed by drowning. Sent into the depths of these waters by having their ankles bound by stones. You’d think the story ends here, but no. The nobles were not satisfied. Again they began drowning us, even the women and the children. It took days before the madness stopped. But by then, there was only a few left alive.”
The barkeeper’s eyes turned dark as he said the last sentence. Staring down his mug, he paused for a few moments before he continuing.
“In any case, that was a long time ago, but the story runs deep into the souls of the residents here. Out of respect, we don’t fish in these waters were the corpses of our forefathers lay buried. I hope you understand.”
I did. I did understand. And I was glad that the man shared this with me.
I thanked the man for the story and the beer and headed out into the night. The wind howled outside, and I picked up the fragrance of fresh water in the air. Somehow, I also noticed a faint pungent smell that stung slightly inside my nose.
Maybe it was my imagination?
At the crossroads, I glanced down the southern road where I came, and then I turned my head towards the northern route leading deeper into the woods. As I kept staring north, I felt a gust of wind blow at the back of my head, this time, leaving the sweet smell of pine in the air. I distinctly remember that I smirked then.
Now certain where to go, I continued my travels, wherever the roads would take me; imagery or real – to the unknown.
© Christopher Stamfors